Set Your Proton Packs to Ridicule: The First Four Years of Jayblog

April 9, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I remember a few years ago Dan Lips asked me if I would ever consider blogging. My reaction was something along the lines of “Naaaah, why would I want to do that?”

Four years in now, it is hard to imagine doing policy work without blogging. Blogging is a great way to test-drive ideas, get feedback, and have fun doing it. Nothing else moves with the speed of the modern conversation.

The story of this blog can be told using images as guideposts. Some images are associated not with a single post but rather a series of posts, starting with this one:

Blogs of course are the media equivalent of a pea-shooter, but with a careful aim you can put out an eye here and there.

The finest hour of the JPGB, in my opinion, came when Senator Durbin accepted marching orders from the NEA and attempted to pillow smother the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. The strategy was to not reauthorize the law, and not to allow new students to enter the program, killing it by attrition. Similar to the British strategy to give arms to bloodthirsty loyalist hillbillies in the American South during the Revolutionary War, this strategy seemed shrewd at the time but backfired badly.

Once the dirty work was (temporarily) done, the Department of Education made a clumsy attempt to deep six the Congressionally mandated program evaluation by releasing it on a Friday with a spin doctored press release. That probably seemed like a great idea at the time as well.

One problem- the study itself was written in English and available online, and Jay reads English and blogs. Jay read the study and leapt into the fray, dubbing the incident “the Friday Night Massacre.” The Wall Street Journal and the Denver Post made inquiries regarding the handling of the study and let’s just say that the administration’s reaction subtracted from their already waning credibility on the matter.

From there, things just kind of got better and better. The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal editorial pages administered regular beat-downs from both the left and the right. NRO’s Jim Geraghty summed up the Obama’s new position on D.C. vouchers:

We know our stance is indefensible; please make this issue go away.”

Eventually President Obama made the issue go away by reauthorizing the program in a budget deal, the best strategic course after bumbling into a sideshow that is costing more than it was worth. Many people deserve credit for saving the program, and Jay is one of them.

In the end, the underdogs won the debate in resounding fashion, kind of like this:

The next image is this one:

Greg’s bet with Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews proved to be great fun. Mathews wrote a piece opining that private choice was simply too politically difficult so he was sticking to charter schools.

Greg bet Mathews dinner that ten legislative chambers would pass either expansions or new choice programs in 2011.

Being a good sport, Greg raised the bar for himself to 7 enactments rather than legislative chambers when he blasted past 10 chambers in 3.6 seconds or so.

Greg ran up the score like John Heisman in 2011. I’m not sure whether he tripled up on Mathews in the end or not. He probably narrowly missed doing so, but the momentum carried over to 2012. So far we have a new tax credit program in Virginia, a tax-credit expansion in Arizona, a tax-credit expansion in Florida, and a major new voucher program in Louisiana. Greg’s original 2011 bet has already been exceeded in 2012, and even his higher bar bet of 7 enactments isn’t inconceivable this year. I now think of Greg’s original bet as the over/under for a good/bad year for the parental choice movement.

No word yet on where Mathews took Greg for dinner nor how much effort it took not to gloat.

Big Think Pieces

I like Greg’s listing of favorite Big-Think pieces, and there are some common threads between them. Greg for instance did an outstanding job laying out why most education reform efforts tend to go nowhere under the current system.

My favorite Jay Big Thinker came when Goldstein-Gone-Wild asked Jay what he would do if he ran the Gates Foundation in the comments section. Jay replied: build new, don’t reform old. If someone appointed me King, I’d make that post required reading for philanthropists as my first official act.

My second official act would probably involve a redirected asteroid and College Station Texas. If they promised to stop the belly aching about the Longhorn Network, I could be persuaded to allow an evacuation.

The Big Thinkers I had the most fun writing both came early in the blog: The Way of the Future in American Schooling and Indiana Jones and the Teacher Quality Crusade. Reasoning by pop-culture analogy got to be a fun habit, which leads us to…


A friend of mine once asked me if I had ever noticed that people tend to think of people just to the left of them as communists, and people just to the right of them as fascists. Only the self stands in exactly the correct spot of thoughtful perfection.

I’ve always kept this jest in mind as a pretty powerful argument in favor of being broad-minded and open to the possibility of needing to perform an occassional mental update.

Nevertheless, the opportunity to unleash a good parody now and then certainly can liven up an otherwise dry discussion.

For instance, the desirable degree of state oversight of a private school choice program is an important topic, but usually a bit on the dry side. Okay, more than a bit.

Despite the fact that I have more than a little sympathy for the point of view parodied, I never laughed so hard at a blog post as I did with with Greg’s AWWWW FREAKOUT!!!  post regarding attacks from the Cato Institute on the new Indiana voucher program.

No, I take it back-Greg’s post on the UFT Card Check, while not a parody itself (more like the documentary of the UFT performing an unintentional self-parody) was the inspiration of so many lampoons that it has to stand as the funniest post of the first four years. Jay’s Fordham Drinking is up there as well.

Of the lampoons I have written, Little Ramona’s Gone Hillbilly Nuts, AFT suggests LBO for Public Schools and JK Rowling: The Jeb Bush of NEPC’s Florida Fantasy were the most fun to write.

What’s Next?

Facing a cannon barrage from a gigantic Turkish army, Baron Munchausen declared to his bedraggled henchmen “They are inviting us to defeat them! We must oblige them!”

No one knows what will happen around the next bend, but my advice is to grab your pea-shooter and take aim. It’s been a blast for us so far, and it isn’t like the bad guys show any sign of slowing the rate of demonstrably false claims.

Transition to the Foundation for Excellence in Education

March 4, 2011

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I will be making a transition from full-time staff to a Senior Fellow with the Goldwater Institute after today, and joining the staff of the Foundation for Excellence in Education on Monday.  I am thrilled about joining Team Jeb, and plan to help GI find a great replacement to carry on our vital work. I will continue to be based in Arizona.

I am especially proud of the work that we did with our allies to improve the transparency in Arizona schools.  A large bipartisan majority of the Arizona legislature took action to replace an obviously inflated version of a national norm referenced exam.  Two years later, a large majority decided to replace fuzzy labels for public school achievement like “performing plus” and “excelling” with letter grades A-F based on the Florida formula.

Much work remains to be done, but I honestly think that we are on the right track for some significant improvement in Arizona public schools.

Arizona’s parental choice coalition has been busy as well. In the past few years, our coalition has taken action to improve the transparency, financial accountability and size of the scholarship tax credit program.  We lost our special needs voucher program in the Arizona Supreme Court, but have worked this session to replace the program with what we hope will be the nation’s first system of public contributions to Education Savings Accounts.

Since 1994, school choice programs in Arizona have mostly taken the edge off of an enormous amount of public school enrollment growth. The enrollment growth has stopped, and may prove absent for some time. Interesting and challenging days lie ahead for parental choice in Arizona.

Major elements of the Florida model are advancing this year. Here in my neighborhood out west, lawmakers have introduced reforms based upon the Florida experience in Arizona, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The PISA exam reveals just how vast our K-12 problems have become but progress is not only necessary but possible.

I want to thank Darcy, the Goldwater Institute board of directors, staff, donors and allies for what has been one hellacious run. The best is yet to come for GI.  While it is sad for me to leave today, it is very exciting for me to join Team Jeb.

Ladner and Burke win a Bunkum Award!!!

February 3, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The NEA’s “academic” mouthpiece have awarded a Bunkum Award to both me and Lindsey Burke! 

Here it is:

The If I Say It Enough, Will It Still Be Untrue? Award, to the Heritage Foundation’s Closing the Racial Achievement Gap, by Matthew Ladner and Lindsey Burke. The award notes Ladner’s success in repackaging in many different venues and media his spurious claim that a series of Florida reforms, including tax vouchers and grade retention, “caused” racial achievement gaps to narrow in the Sunshine State. “Ladner’s fecundity isn’t really what sets this work apart. It’s his willingness to smash through walls of basic research standards in his dogged pursuit of his policy agenda,” according to our judges. “Nothing in the data or analyses of Dr. Ladner or the Heritage Foundation comes even close to allowing for a causal inference.”

First, I would like to thank the academy, and the Heritage Foundation for giving me a chance to win this wonderful honor.  The scorn of reactionaries is a treasure to cherish. Given that our critic, bless her heart, unknowingly included a table in her report that completely undermined her thesis, I was delighted to see it published.

As to this “inference issue” Dan Lips and I published an article years ago in the nation’s most influential education policy journal examining a number of possible alternate explanations to Florida’s remarkable academic gains. Our critic not only ignored this article, she essentially recreated the argument of another education school professor who we addressed in the piece. She didn’t cite his work either. Oh, and she started her critique off by complaining that Burke and I failed to perform a literature review.

In any case, both Burke and I will have to continue to work hard to earn more of these awards. I hope that we haven’t peaked too early…

Wonk Action Shots!

January 27, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I just returned from a series of events put on by the Kansas Policy Institute and the Foundation for Educational Choice. Long suffering readers of JPGB might possibly recognize the topic if they turn their intuitive discernment nob to “11”:

Need another hint? Well, okay….

I met great people in Kansas, and had them ask very good questions. The NAEP shows that on average Kansas schools are good when compared to American states. The scores for disadvantaged student populations, including the growing Hispanic population, must improve if Kansas is going to go from good to GREAT.

Story in the Wichta Eagle here and a television news report here.

Reason TV for School Choice Week Part Deux

January 27, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

My residual self image is having a hard time looking at this guy with gray hair…

Burke and Ladner respond to the Think Tank Review Project

December 6, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Lindsey Burke and I respond to a critique of our work by the Think Tank Review project. Perhaps my favorite part is where the reviewer chides us for failing to do a literature review but failed to notice that Dan Lips and I had refuted her main contention over a year ago in Education Next. The main point of the review is an attempt to cry foul over Florida’s 4th Grade NAEP scores due to the 3rd grade retention policy.

I’ve changed my mind, this is my favorite part:

This page comes directly from the review. Notice that by the information gathered by the reviewer herself, the percentage of Florida students scoring FCAT 1 (the lowest possible score and the score making a student eligible for retention) in 3rd grade fell from 27% in 2001-02 to 17% in 2008-09. That’s almost a 38% decline.

Likewise, the percentage of African-American students scoring FCAT 1 fell from 41% to 27%, and the Hispanic rate fell from 35% to 21%. Notice that the African-American rate of scoring FCAT 1 now matches the overall rate in 2001-02 had been.

This is called “radical success.”

Notice also that the number of students actually being retained drops by more than half between the first year of the policy and 2008-09. Despite that fact, Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores continued to climb. If Florida’s NAEP improvement were driven by retention, scores ought to have peaked early in the decade, and then fallen off. Instead, they continued to rise throughout the decade, even as retention declined.

Oh, and Florida’s reading scores improved by almost a grade level before the retention policy even passed. I could go on, point out the practice of mid-year promotions further weakens the “it was all retentions” theory, and/or blather at some length about the regression discontinuity analysis that Jay performed, which strongly points to something other than aging going on with this policy. Click the link if you want to read about it.

The bottom line: these policies worked. The percentage of Florida students scoring below basic on 4th grade reading dropped from 47% to 27% between 1998 and 2009. No one knows exactly how much of which policy moved the needle, but there is a simple solution to this: do all of the policies at the same time.

If Florida lawmakers had mandated in 1999 that students stood off the side of their desks to do jumping jacks to start each school day, and childhood illiteracy dropped like a rock off a cliff, I would be advocating for other states to do the same. At least until such time that someone established that it didn’t add any value.

In some offline conversations I have had with the Think Tank Review people, they seem to think that other states should be “cautious” until we know exactly how much improvement there has been after hair-splitting, and what causes what.

I disagree. In my view, that’s like getting into an argument about whether to use the sprinkler system, the firehose or the buckets of water when kids are running around with their hair on fire. Florida used all the approaches at once, and got great improvement.

Governor-elect Scott seems to busily readying Florida Reform Version 2.0. Somehow I doubt he will be much persuaded by an attempt to muddy the water on Version 1.0.

All is not lost, however.

I will be adding the above table from their study to my Powerpoint, given how well it makes the case for Florida’s reforms.

Rhee Resignation

October 13, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Robert Enlow, Greg, Virginia Walden Ford,  Lance Izumi, Lisa Snell and I weigh in on the Rhee resignation in School Reform News.


The Cool Kids put on a brave face in the New York Times.

Rotherham wisely notes that if Gray is going to kill reform, he will do it later in a series of pillow-smotherings rather than in some obvious fashion.

WaPo columnist McCartney on the Rhee aftermath.

Finally, the WaPo produced this sobering “Man on the Street” reaction video showing DC residents having far more sympathy with ineffective teachers than the students in the schools.


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